Death of a daughter inspires two books

After Francesca Luard died of Aids aged 29 both her parents published accounts of their grief, reports Cole Moreton
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The Independent Online
FRANCESCA LUARD was always unusual. Beautiful, intelligent and charming, she played chess for the Foreign Legion, was fluent in three languages and modelled for Vogue. Now, her death from an Aids-related disease at the age of 29 has inspired a literary first.

It is not uncommon for a bereaved parent to work through grief by writing a book about the loss. For both mother and father to do so separately is unheard of - or rather was, until the Luards began to write.

First, an account of Francesca's death was the heart-rending climax to Family Life by her mother, Elisabeth, a cookery writer, which was published by Bantam in 1996. Now the same tragic event is the focus of The Field of the Star, by her father, Nicholas, to be published in hardback by Michael Joseph at the end of the month.

Taken together, these two accounts by professional authors provide a unique account of their daughter's last days - and expose painful differences in the way they handled the situation.

Mr Luard, a novelist and adventurer who co-founded the Establishment Club and Private Eye in the early Sixties, decided to walk the Pilgrim Way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, after his daughter was diagnosed as HIV-positive. His story of the journey is interposed with chapters written directly to Francesca.

"I didn't for one moment think that God or the stars or pagan Ceres in Spring would make you well in recognition of what I was doing," he writes. "They were all benign but they were remote. Their powers were suspended for they knew, as you and I did, you'd entered what the Spanish call a camino sin salida - a road with no way out."

Lighting candles in chapels along the way, he reflects on their uneasy relationship as "wayward distant father and brilliant turbulent daughter". "We collided again and again. Jostling angrily, we spat like cats at each other. Yet your mother always said you were more like me than any of the others, and frayed and strained as it often was, the bond was deep and it lasted."

The death of a loved one has always provoked fine words, from King David mourning for the death of Jonathan to W H Auden's "Funeral Blues" and beyond. "There have been interesting books before about the loss of a child," says the author Blake Morrison, who has written about the deaths of Jamie Bulger and his own father, "but there cannot be many couples in which the husband and wife both possess the skills to respond in this way."

Both parents muse in print on the injustice of an early death for their gifted daughter, a nice middle-class girl with a degree in biology and a career in journalism, who was not promiscuous and never used drugs. Francesca survived for four years after the initial diagnosis, finally succumbing to cancer in November 1994, at St Thomas' Hospital in London.

"I alone was with you when the last of those damnable tests were done, when the final sentence was handed down, and we both realised from then on we were measuring time in weeks," writes Mr Luard, who spent a week as Francesca's main carer while his wife was away. "We held hands then. Absurdly I needed comforting far more than you did, and you knew it - your spirit much larger than mine - and you gave it to me."

When Elisabeth Luard returned, she and the youngest daughter, Poppy, "united to escort you to where you were bound". The two women spent most of Francesca's last week with her in hospital. Elisabeth Luard's book, now available as a Corgi paperback, describes the brave intimacy of that period, as they "settled down together in this small world, this bubble of my daughter's making. There are angels here".

Their closeness was their strength, and the circle could not be broken by visitors, not even by Francesca's father. "Nicholas, knowing we need him but unable to find his way through the wall of her bubble, patrols the perimeters," wrote Mrs Luard.

Her husband reveals in his own book that he found her chronicle of that last week "almost unbearably distressing" but also "extraordinarily inspiring". On the road to Santiago he remembers the exclusion he felt in the hospital, but admires the women. "What you did together was to confront and stare down the last great spectre of our frightened secular age, death. The women of the family, as so often in the past, had ruined ruin."

His pilgrimage was made in stages, when commitments allowed, the last part after Francesca's death. "I wanted a reconciliation," he writes. "The long walk to Santiago was intended to provide it, but of course I didn't get it. Death and truculent daughters and difficult fathers combine to make a combustible mix, much like a haystack drenched by the Spring rains and then half dried out in the summer's sun. The stack can ignite and flare. Much, I guess, Francesca, like you and me. There's no reconciliation with a still burning fire."

The clinical psychologist Oliver James says parents often experience a cycle of rage, anger and numbness after the death of a child. Some come to terms with their loss as the cycle diminishes, others deny to themselves that it ever happened, or campaign to prevent it happening to anyone else. He sees a big difference between working out your grief on paper as private notes, and writing for publication. "An awful lot of literature is about trying to inspire emotion in the reader. This is usually called communication, but from a psychologist's point of view it could be seen as an attempt by the writer to transfer some of the painful emotions they are experiencing on to others, to make their own pain diminish."